As we find ourselves in the middle of winter, many doctors are treating quite a few patients with upper respiratory infections. Some key symptoms to look out for include runny and stuffy nose, sore throat, headache, cough and fever.

Many types of medicines can help you fight off a respiratory infection. But sometimes the best medicine is not a prescription medication. Taking such medication when they are not needed can actually make the situation worse. Your doctor will evaluate your symptoms and decide if you need a prescription medicine or not.

Respiratory infections causing the common cold, sore throat, sinus infection and bronchitis are generally caused by viruses. Viruses are not killed by antibiotics, which are medicines that only kill bacteria. That’s why no cure for the common cold has yet been invented.

Sometimes a viral infection can lead to a bacterial infection. A virus can weaken your immune system or damage tissues. This makes it easier for bacteria to grow and cause disease. It can be hard to tell if a viral infection is leading to a bacterial infection. The indicator used most often is time: the longer your symptoms persist, the more likely bacteria have become involved.

Viral respiratory infections usually get better within seven to 10 days. If symptoms continue longer than that, or if you start to feel better but then get worse, you may have a bacterial infection. Your doctor might prescribe an antibiotic to help fight the infection. If so, you should take the medicine exactly as prescribed. If you quit taking the medicine early, you may end up with an even more serious infection.

Even though antibiotics don’t help you recover from a viral respiratory infection, there are ways you can speed recovery and feel better:

  • If you smoke, stop. Stay away from other smokers. Smoking and cigarette smoke can make your symptoms worse.
  • If the air is dry, add humidity to a room with a humidifier.
  • An over-the-counter nasal spray can sometimes help with stuffy, congested nose symptoms, but don’t use over-the-counter nasal spray decongestants for more than three days. Prolonged use can lead to “rebound” symptoms—a return of the original symptoms, possibly with greater severity.
  • Use over-the-counter antihistamines or decongestants or a combination of both. If you take medicines for other medical problems that you have, check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking cold remedies.
  • Take pain relievers. (Ibuprofen or acetaminophen may be helpful for aches and pains.)
  • Read and follow all medication label instructions.
  • Blow your nose gently.
  • Drink plenty of clear fluids.
  • For facial discomfort, apply warm towels or facial packs.
  • Wash your hands frequently, especially if you are in close contact with others. This will help stop the spread of the virus. If you need to cough, do so into your sleeve or into a Kleenex or napkin and quickly dispose of these.

A respiratory infection is never fun. But now you know how to make smart decisions about your treatment. You’re more likely to recover quickly and breathe easily once again.

Dr. Pichardo-LaFontaine is with Baylor Scott & White Medical Center– Round Rock.


By Gabriela Pichardo-LaFontaine, MD, Internal Medicine

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